In the Heights, the Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, is set in Manhattan but flavored with the sounds and soul of Miami.
The show’s Tony-winning co-orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire, grew up in Miami and went to high school at New World School of the Arts. Many of the show’s original Broadway stars and ensemble members were Miamians — so many that, around Tony time in 2008, Miranda observed, “Miami is our secret weapon.”
On tour, In the Heights played Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center in 2010, and the production closed out its long road journey not quite two years ago at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
But finally, as the highlight of the 25th anniversary season at Actors’ Playhouse, South Florida is getting a homegrown production of In the Heights.
Previewing at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday before its Friday opening at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, this In the Heights is a blend of Miami talent and actors with experience in the Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring productions.
“We could have cast the whole thing here,” says choreographer Stephanie Klemons, who works with Tony-winning Heights choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and has played multiple roles in the show. “People [here] are talented. They have dance, vocal and acting chops. They come with the soul; they have the ‘it’ factor you can’t create.”
David Arisco, artistic director at Actors’ since its earliest days in a former Kendall movie theater, says In the Heights is the ideal centerpiece for the company’s silver anniversary season.
“I always felt that what this town needs is a show that incorporates English, Spanish and ‘Spanglish,’ tied to good traditional storytelling,” he says. “I love that this is a Fiddler on the Roof for Latinos. It’s about tradition, family, homeland, a new musical that speaks to this community. Within the first half-hour of the show, you learn that you’re watching a diverse group of Hispanics — Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans.”
Similarly, the actor-singer-dancers in the Actors’ cast have far-reaching roots: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (plus the United States and Israel). The opportunity to perform in a show that flows from and speaks to their heritage is deeply meaningful to them.
“This is the first time my grandmother will come to see me in a show and see herself,” says Henry Gainza, who plays the Puerto Rican piragua (snow cone) seller and is the show’s assistant director.
Nick Duckart, a New World grad, is playing Usnavi, the role originated by Miranda (yes, there’s a story behind the leading character’s name, but it’s funnier in the context of the show). Usnavi is the bodega owner in the bustling Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan. He narrates, observes, interacts and throws down rhymes. That last part, says Duckart, has been the biggest challenge for him.
“I can’t rap to save my life,” he says, laughing. “So I listened to the cast recording on an endless loop. I figured I’d better learn how.”